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From the fire to the frying pan?

Published by , Senior Editor
Hydrocarbon Engineering,

Bushfires recently raged in Australia, and an article in the August 2019 issue of Hydrocarbon Engineering discussed Australia’s love-hate relationship with the fossil energy industry and the growing concern over global climate change.1 This year, the world is battling the COVID-19 coronavirus, which has infected over 11.6 million people and caused 593 000 fatalities at the time of writing. Has Australia moved out of the fire into the frying pan? Worldwide, confirmed cases of COVID-19 and fatalities are climbing every day. While Australia is considered an exemplar in fighting the coronavirus pandemic, many of its key trading partners are not, and there is no end in sight. People’s habits, and thus the structure of the economy, are changing. Some of these changes will be permanent.

Australia was already rethinking its approach to energy and the environment, but the recent fires and current pandemic may accelerate change. The country’s economy has benefited from development of oil, natural gas and coal, but dependence on these resources has created a carbon-intensive economy and taken a toll on the environment. A recent survey by the University of New South Wales (UNSW) found that 66% of Australians believe that climate change is the biggest challenge facing the world today. A huge majority, 85%, believe that Australia needs a clear policy that addresses carbon emissions and ensures that the energy supply is reliable and affordable.2 But efforts to launch a carbon tax have proven divisive, and governments have risen and fallen on the issue. Australia has had five prime ministers serve in the past decade.

Today, with the world battling the COVID-19 pandemic, where will Australia go with its energy and environmental policy? There are now multiple forces at work, and many working at cross purposes. For example, the shelter-in-place policies have cut into travel and fuel use, and people have noticed cleaner air. This provides motivation to continue to push for clean air regulation. In some areas, however, bushfires sent so much smoke into the air that it made ordinary air pollution control actions seem futile at times. What possible difference could a zero-emission vehicle have had in Canberra at the height of the pollution, when Canberra’s air was ranked as the third worst in the world? The bushfires raised questions about whether public money could be better spent on bushfire prevention and relocating citizens away from wildland-urban interface (WUI) areas. Will Australia continue to pursue cleaner fuels and more efficient vehicles, or should the effort shift to bushfire prevention? Can they afford both? Tourism was touted as better for the economy and the environment than the coal industry, and the coal industry was forced to lobby hard to justify its position. But what if tourism takes a permanent dive in this newly contagion-cautious world? Can it possibly be construed as meaning that preserving the environment is less important for the Australian citizen than it is for a foreign visitor?

The COVID-19 pandemic is disrupting economic activity and energy use in Australia and the world. The pandemic is far from over. Still, data is now available that illustrates some early impacts. In this article, the latest available data on Australia’s hydrocarbon industry and the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic will be explored.

Australia and COVID-19

In the absence of vaccines and proven disease treatments, social distancing and stay-at-home orders are the main weapons available to fight COVID-19. Some people have resisted these measures, making it necessary for governments to make them mandatory. Governments that have done so swiftly and decisively are now winning the battle against the disease. Governments that have vacillated, given mixed signals, and reopened their economies too quickly are losing. Australia is one of the countries that acted swiftly, with the government activating its emergency response to COVID-19 on 27 February, declaring it to be a global pandemic well ahead of the World Health Organization (WHO), which waited until 11 March. Australia closed its borders and required a two-week quarantine period for travellers...

Written by Nancy Yamaguchi, Contributing Editor.

This article was originally published in the August 2020 issue of Hydrocarbon Engineering. To read the full article, and other great technical articles in this issue, view the full issue here. You can also register to receive a free regular copy of the magazine here.

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